Debuting in 2012 with the titular The Conjuring, Warner Bros. and James Wan’s Conjuring Universe has since become one of the most successful horror media franchises, as well as one of the few shared universes franchises that were able to succeed in the shadow of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The eighth movie of the franchise and third of the main Conjuring series, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, directed by Michael Chaves, has Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga returning as paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren as they investigate the famous real 1981 murder case of Arne Cheyenne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor), who claimed demonic possession as his defense for killing his landlord Alan Bono (whose name was changed to Bruno Sauls in the movie.)
Johnson’s case had already been the subject of a telefilm titled The Demon Murder Case in 1981, as well as a 1983 book written by Gerald Brittle with Lorraine Warren’s assistance titled The Devil in Connecticut, for which David Glatzel and his brother Carl sued Brittle and Warren for libel and violation of their privacy. The Warrens, whose investigations are the basis of the whole Conjuring Universe, have always been controversial figures, their evidence of paranormal activity being judged by many to be dubious at best, and being frequently accused of being frauds. Whether you believe them or not, one thing that is for sure is they have been extremely successful, having authored many books about the paranormal and had their investigations be the basis of many popular horror stories, such as the Amityville haunting, the Enfield Poltergeist, Johnson’s case, and of course the famous cursed doll Annabelle, who has already been the subject of three movies within the Conjuring Universe.
The movie’s basis on real events is mostly found in the first act, which tells the events as Johnson alleged them to have happened in his defense. The Warrens are originally called to investigate the demonic possession of eight-year-old David Glatzel (Julian Hillard), who experiences night terrors and violent outbursts. After David is exorcised, the demon who possessed him instead enters the body of Arne Johnson, the boyfriend of David’s older sister Debbie (Sarah Catherine Hook), who lives with the family. Months later, Arne kills the family’s landlord (Ronnie Gene Blevins) and is arrested. The rest of the movie focuses on Ed and Lorraine’s investigations as they attempt to prove that Johnson was indeed possessed by a demon to avoid him the death penalty, and find the source of the curse, most of which is entirely fictional. Their investigations lead them to the fictional case of Jessica Louise Strong (Ingird Bisu), which they find out is connected to Johnson’s case, and eventually trace the origin of both cases to Lola Kastner (Eugenie Bondurant), the daughter of a retired priest who has become a satanist and made a deal with a demon. Lola’s father, Father Kastner (John Noble), was fascinated by satanism and had famously investigated a satanist cult some years earlier, and possesses a collection of satanist books and objects in his basement to study them, which he claims is what drew his daughter towards satanism.
Don’t get me wrong, the movie is properly scary. Its mix of gloomy atmosphere, sneaky background scares, psychological tension and sparingly-used jumpscares creates a whole that has the viewer at the edge of their seat. But what makes the horror aspect really work is the way it is contrasted with comedic relief, as well as scenes that build up tension only to relieve it with something banal, such as the scene where Johnson is alone in his cell and sees a shadowy figure approaching, only for it to just be a guard. This causes the scary moments to be foregrounded in a way that makes them stand out even more, which makes them all the more powerful. Not only that, but the jokes are properly funny too.
However, as an atheist I couldn’t help but cringe at certain overly Chritstian moments which really detract from the overall tension. Firstly, I have to say that I haven’t seen any of the Conjuring Universe’s other movies, and thus don’t know if they are as overly religious as this one, but the whole thing just sounds like an elaborate Christian propaganda movie à la God’s Not Dead, only with a high budget and actually entertaining. The Warrens were known to be very religious and believed that those who lacked faith were prone to be possessed by demons, and based most of their theory of the paranormal on Christian theology and the Bible, and it really transpires into this film. The Christian God and Devil exist in this universe, as do Hell and Demons, and they directly interact with the material world, and must be defeated with faith, holy water and the Bible. Additionally, the movie also treats Lorraine’s self-proclaimed clairvoyance and medium abilities as real, like an actual superpower that she had. But the cringiest of all has got to be the climax, in which the couple literally defeat the demon with the power of love, as Lorraine tells a possessed Ed that their love is stronger than all and the demon is repulsed by it, which successfully makes Ed regain control of his body, in an act that makes even the infamous anime power of friendship make sense in comparison.
Overall the film is definitely not bad, though by no means a masterpiece either, and succeeds as a classic horror movie in which the story is mostly there to provide a context for the scares. Yes, the claim that it is based on real events is quite far fetched, as it is only very loosely inspired by those events, and is mostly there for the cliché that makes the movie exponentially scarier for the average naïve viewer, but that’s part of the fun, and I doubt the Glatzel family has any intention of suing Warner Bros. again for it. Yes, the real Warrens were most likely nothing more than very skilled grifters, but there’s not fun in that, is there?